Angst on overdrive as USA meet Panama with World Cup hopes in balance

Steve Brenner in Orlando
USA coach Bruce Arena speaks to the media during a press conference ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Panama.

Bruce Arena took his place at the top table and smiled.

“This is a pretty big game,” said the United States coach, referencing the packed media throng which put the tiny interview room at the Orlando City stadium close to bursting point. Arena was right. Friday night’s meeting with Panama is huge.

Scratch that. It’s absolutely massive.

Smiles will be replaced with frowns and grimaces once the first whistle sounds. For all the confident strides the game in North America has taken in the last decade or so, for the national team not to appear at the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 would be tantamount to disaster.

If MLS wants to attain the dream of becoming an elite league, the US needs must compete on the grandest stages. The national team must always be in the rudest of health. There’s no shop window like the World Cup.

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Sitting at home next summer watching the action in Russia unfold on TV would be beyond painful for everyone with a vested interest in the growth of the game on these shores. The angst, however, is totally understandable.

Arena’s team take on the rugged, defensively astute Los Canaleros coming off the back of a dispiriting home defeat to Costa Rica at the start of September and a less than inspirational 1-1 draw in Honduras four days later.

Yes, their destiny remains crucially in their own hands. A win here and then a similar outcome next week against a Trinidad and Tobago side who occupy bottom spot in the Concacaf hexagonal would see those worries melt away. An inability to get all three points, however, and the headaches will return.

The often brain melting ‘what if’ conversation has been the talk of the town. A Panama win – it would be a first on American soil – would seal the third automatic qualification spot and send Hernan Dario Gomez’s side to the World Cup finals for the first ever time. Indeed, if you think this is an important match for the US, put yourself in the shoes of a soccer fan in Panama City tonight.

Maybe that’s why the Colombian has dodged press conferences this week, much to the chagrin of an excitable, expectant Panamanian media who are praying their so-called golden generation can finally make that final step without the accompanying heartbreak which has soured recent attempts.

A 3-2 defeat to Jürgen Klinsmann’s side four years ago scuppered their hopes in the final qualifying game. Anything less than three points would leave the US sweating in fourth and the unappetizing prospect of a potential two legged play-off match against either Syria, who play their home matches in Malaysia, or Australia.

Honduras, who are also on nine points with the US, play a Costa Rican side who will qualify in second place behind unassailable group leaders Mexico if they get at least a point, also remain in the mix. Their final game is against the Mexicans who should be on cruise control, although their goal difference of minus-7 could prove problematic.

There are myriad possibilities yet relying on other results is never a good look. The US, for all the money spent in bringing in Klinsmann and building a system which should see them challenging the leading nations, shouldn’t be in this precarious position.

The significance, and potential ramifications, aren’t lost on the man who memorably led the US to the World Cup last eight in 2002. “We continue to grow the game in this country,” said Arena who wants to see his side grab the initiative from the off. “The game in the US is at its highest point in its history, with a growing domestic league, very competitive national team in a region that continues to grow as well. It’s important that we continue to qualify for World Cups. I don’t how you actually quantify that, but it’s certainly very important.”

With such high stakes, it promises to be intense. Orlando boasts some of the most fanatical fans in MLS. Arena and his team need them to rise to the occasion. Panama are miserly at the back – just five goals conceded from the last eight qualifiers illustrates a real sense of organization, cohesiveness and solidity.

For the US to succeed, that resolute defense will need to be broken down by a team lacking creativity of the highest order. Just 12 goals – including six in one game against Honduras – have come during this hexagonal stage.

The precocious talent of Christian Pulisic will be relied upon heavily and after kicking him all over the park in Panama last March, the visitors are acutely aware of the Borussia Dortmund forward’s prowess.

“I won’t change my attacking style just because how other teams are treating me,” said the 19-year-old. “[His treatment in Panama] was to be expected. None of these teams are going to give it to us easy. If we can get an early goal, that would be perfect.”

While there will be many more days in the sun for young Pulisic, Arena’s legacy is on the line. For all his MLS titles and successes with the national team, missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986 would forever stain his copybook. The 66-year-old was the safe, if uninspired, choice to replace Klinsmann last year. He inherited a team bereft of confidence and direction yet 11 months back in the hots eat is long enough for excuses to fall on deaf ears.

A mistrust of his own defense, a penchant for chopping and changing his goalkeepers and the absence of serious attacking verve have exposed problems which give the likes of Panama a reason to believe.

Bringing in Bob Bradley, the former US coach and current incumbent of new MLS side LAFC, to training this week in the hope of adding some wisdom points to a man who knows something extra is needed to stave off disaster.

“We know what’s at stake,” added Pulisic. “We are ready and focused.” They will need to be.

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